John Deere: down on the farm

(Full disclosure: my clients and I own shares of Deere).

This has been a tough year for the agriculture sector. After a couple of fat years of high profitability, farmers and those who sell to farmers are worried about a couple of lean years. The agriculture sector is a victim of it’s own success. High productivity has led to bumper crops that are driving down the prices of corn, soybeans, wheat, etc., and that is leading to lower profits for farmers and lower demand for farm equipment.

That has led to speculation about how long the farm sector will be down. I’ll kill the suspense: no one knows. 

On the one hand, you have huge supply, both from farmers in the U.S. and around the world (Brazil, in particular, has become very productive). Lots of supply drives down prices. This supply has been “enhanced” by government support of ethanol production and loans for farmers to buy equipment, which means the oversupply may last. 

On the other hand, you have demand. Global demand has subsided with slow developed economies in the U.S., Europe and Japan, as well as slower developing and emerging economies in the rest of the world. This is likely to be a temporary phenomenon, but it could last, especially with bad economic policies or geopolitical issues.

So, no one really knows how long this downturn might last. Higher demand caused by accelerating economic growth could make the downturn very brief. Lower supply is the rational economic outcome from low crop prices. How these factors play against each other is simply unknown and unknowable.

But, that is what makes the farm sector such an interesting place to look for value investments. 

The economics of the business are good, especially for equipment manufacturers. There are three big producers of farm equipment that share more than 50% of the global market, and that share is likely to grow over time. Those manufacturers are John Deere (DE), Case New Holland International (CNHI) and AGCO (AGCO). 

John Deere has the largest share of revenue and profits, and they have wisely plowed those profits back into making better equipment. That gives Deere a sustainable competitive advantage they can maintain as long as they are well managed. Deere dominates the high end of the market for tractors and combines, which is the direction global markets are going as farming becomes more productive and mechanized over time.

That, however, does not remove the cyclical nature of the business. Farm cycles go boom and bust due to government interference, lending practices, weather, global demand, and a host of other issues. This cyclical nature isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Warren Buffett says, I’d rather have a lumpy 15% than a stable 12%.

So, is John Deere a good investment capable of providing a good, but lumpy return? That is the topic I’ll pick up again next week.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

John Deere: down on the farm

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